We are a group of friends who share a common love of Japanese culture and high-quality tea and do our best to make lifestyle choices that promote optimum health. We have long been impressed by the solid body of scientific evidence for the health benefits of tea — green tea, in particular.
In Japan, green tea — sencha — is an everyday beverage. Even ordinary varieties served in offices and inexpensive restaurants look and taste better than what passes for green tea in North America. Green tea here is often more yellow or brown than true green and lacks aroma and flavor. Often it is mixed with jasmine, spices, and other herbs. Authentic Japanese green tea looks and tastes great — really green, slightly bitter, with a rich, complex, satisfying flavor. The best varieties, like shade-grown gyokuro, are expensive delicacies that yield a pure green, richly aromatic brew with a sweeter, deeper taste than sencha.
Occasionally on trips to Japan we got to try matcha (literally “powdered tea”) served by practitioners of the tea ceremony. This special beverage is unlike any other green tea. Brilliant green matcha powder has the texture of flour. The host places a measured amount in a warmed ceramic tea bowl, adds a small portion of hot water, then uses a bamboo whisk to whip the mixture into a froth. She then presents the bowl to the guest, who is expected to drink the tea in three audible slurps and return the empty bowl to the host, who repeats the process until each guest is served.
The Japanese tea ceremony is a formalized ritual with a long history and associations with Zen Buddhism. We liked matcha so much that we wanted to enjoy it on its own and drink it regularly. At first, we had to bring small tins of it back from Japan because it was not available here. We also brought back tea bowls and bamboo measuring scoops and whisks. Soon we were in the habit of drinking a morning bowl of matcha and turning friends onto it.
Gradually, we learned more about this rare and highly prized form of green tea: how it is cultivated and processed, the distinctions among different grades, how to recognize the best products. We were pleased to note growing awareness of and interest in matcha in America, but we were dismayed by the low quality of matcha drinks offered in cafés, tea shops, and restaurants. Whether served hot in a bowl or cup, iced, or as latté, it was often dull yellow-green, a sure sign of deterioration from improper storage, exposure to air, and probably inferior tea to begin with. Not only does this kind of matcha lack the vibrant color it should have, the aroma and flavor are far from what they should be. Also, more and more matcha marketed here is imported from China; Chinese matcha is just not as good as Japanese.
Meantime, we were becoming excited about the unique health benefits of matcha.
We decided to form a company to identify, import, and provide really good matcha to people here, as well as to inform about ways to experience the pleasure of preparing and consuming it.
The first step was to source the best matcha. We focused on Uji, the famous tea-growing region in Kyoto Prefecture in western Japan, got to know several generations-old producers, visited tea fields (covered by shade cloth in the few weeks before harvest), observed harvesting both by hand and machine, watched a tea auction in the town of Uji, and went to several processing facilities to see how specially grown tea leaves are sorted, cleaned, steamed, dried, and finally pulverized between grooved granite grinding stones. That last step, once done laboriously by hand, is now mechanized but still takes time. Finally, the precious, powdered tea is graded by color and flavor and sealed in air-tight tins.
Many grades of matcha are sold. The lowest are “food-grade” product used to make green soba noodles, green-tea ice cream, cookies, cakes, and other foods, mostly sweets. Above them are many grades of thin tea (usucha) for whisking in the usual way. Mid-level thin-tea products are often excellent, both colorful and flavorful. Higher grades are more costly, brighter green, richer in aroma and flavor, and less bitter. The very best matcha, called ceremonial grade is the most costly with the best color, very aromatic, and deeply flavored with a perfect balance of bitter and sweet tastes. Within this category are various subgrades. The highest can be prepared as thick tea (koicha) that uses a much higher ratio of tea to water and is mostly used in the meal accompanying a formal tea ceremony. We find that thick tea does not appeal to the Western palate. But these premium grades of matcha work perfectly well to make very delicious thin tea.
Like most consumers, we were astounded at the price tags of ultra-premium matcha in Japan and realized that added costs of import would put it beyond the reach of American consumers. As with fine wine, you want to find a balance between quality and affordability. We found that we liked the better grades of thin tea for everyday use and were willing to pay more for some of the medium-quality ceremonial grades to use for special occasions. We selected for import only those products that met our standards for color, aroma, and flavor. And we decided to carry a top-quality food-grade matcha for those who want to use it as an ingredient.
We remain committed to learning as much about our favorite form of green tea as possible and to bringing you not only the best matcha we can find but also the best information about ways to use it and the health benefits it provides.